Whenever I’m teaching photography, or even just talking shop with new shooters, a question I get a lot is, ‘What lenses should I buy?’
The first and most important accessory you should get for your camera is a tripod. Full stop. Choose one that suits what you shoot most, or at least something that’s versatile.
My first tripod was a little ‘travel’ grade tripod I picked up a Fry’s. Single mechanism, extendable legs, collapsed down to about a foot tall, slipped into my backpack easily, TSA didn’t even blink at it. Of course, I was shooting a Canon 350D Rebel XT at the time, which feels like a toy compared to a 5dmkII with battery grip and lens. Even so, it worked well for what I was doing at the time, which was rediscovering my love of landscape photography. I eventually discarded it once I wore the mechanism down and it couldn’t lock properly anymore, but it taught me important lessons about what to look for in a tripod.
Once I was committed, I picked up a Canon 7D, which is on the same scale as the 5DmkII, and that necessitated a bigger tripod that could handle some weight. I chanced upon a used Tiltall at the camera shop, a slightly beaten all aluminum kit, about six feet tall at full extension. A fair bit heavier, to boot, but it was built like a tank, and I put thousands of miles on it soon after. Dual mechanisms, one per axis, broke down easily enough to fit in my duffel when flying. TSA did blink at it a few times, but nothing too bad.
I should point out that TSA only ever questioned what it was when flying home, because those clowns in Phoenix can’t catch a cold. Yeah, I said it. You guys have consistently missed my Gerber multitool, which Boise and Miami were both quite stern about. You also missed a stray jacketed 9mm round that a Denver tech held up like he’d found Excalibur. I’m a little more careful with my packing these days, but you’ve also never once hit on my Spyder holster, which Chicago, Melbourne, San Francisco, and JFK all were very curious about.
These days I’m rocking a Manfrotto with a Promaster ball head, which is solid for studio work, and decent for field work, if I don’t have to carry it strapped to a pack. It’s a bit heavy. I’m still in the market for a decent backpack tripod, but it’s not a priority right now.
Anyway, why a tripod? One of the discouraging things as a new shooter is seeing great, fantastic light or vistas, and having gear that’s limited in capability. Or maybe you just don’t have a steady hand. Blurry photos are a prime source of frustration, and a tripod is a cure for both shaky hands and challenged equipment. The key thing that a tripod lets you do is trade time for light, running exposure times in full seconds without camera shake. Once you get down to 1/60th of a second or slower, your breathing, your heartbeat, any kind of motion will start to introduce blur to your shots. For landscapes especially, this is the kiss of death, right?
The shot above was taken at Monument Valley, UT, under moonlight. It’s an old shot from my collection, shot on a Canon 7D, mounting a Tokina AT-X 12-24mm wide angle lens, 30″@F4 ISO400. 30 seconds is long, for a starfield shot, as you can see the stars have started tracking, which is not ideal. My subject was the foreground, though, the monuments themselves, the road tracking through the desert. To the naked eye, the road could be clearly seen, and the monuments silhouetted against the sky fairly well, but it didn’t make for a compelling photo, I needed more light, which I didn’t have. So I traded time for light, locking the shutter open for an extended period to drink in more photons.
It’s not panacea, though. Even with a tripod, you can still be challenged on light. Shooting night landscapes, the stars become your upper limit for time, if you don’t want star trails, so depending on your focal length, you’re going to top out at 15-20 seconds of exposure time. This shot, under no moon, left me with a gorgeous, lightning illuminated cloud bank, but very little foreground lighting. 25″@F1.4 ISO 800, using a 24mm 1.4L mounted on a Canon 5dMkII, left me with a foreground that was a lot noisier than I’d have liked, no matter what was going on with the clouds, and more star trails than I wanted, too.
Every camera and lens combination has different limits, and long before you start investing in lenses, especially expensive ones, you should get your hands on a tripod. It’ll help you understand your limits, and guide your later purchases, so you’ll spend a little smarter, which leaves more money for food and fuel so you can get out and find some magic.
Have a great weekend!